Make trouble for the essay mills

Banning ghostwriting services from advertising won’t stop students cheating, but four simple steps could hobble them, says Geoffrey Alderman

September 1, 2016
Paper being processed in paper mill
Source: iStock

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Oxford in the 1960s, rumours were rife that some history students earned money by writing others’ weekly essays for them. Many years later, someone even boasted to me about how much money they had made this way.

But plagiarism of this sort had absolutely no effect on degree outcomes, since none of the grades awarded for these essays played any part in formal, degree-related assessment. What counted – for better or worse – was exclusively one’s performance in 11 three-hour written exams taken at the end of one’s third undergraduate year.

I recalled those rumours as I read the Quality Assurance Agency’s recent report on what it terms “custom essay writing services” (“Bar essay mills from advertising and search engines, says watchdog”, News, 18 August). On the face of it, the QAA’s plans for tackling what is undoubtedly a dangerous growth industry seem robust: prohibit essay mills from advertising or being accessed via search engines, and even make it a criminal offence for anyone to aid or enable individuals, for financial gain, to commit acts of academic dishonesty.

But I can tell you now that none of these remedies will work. Prostitutes are supposed to be banned from advertising – but we’ve all seen the “massage parlour” stickers affixed to the inside of telephone booths. Many – most, it seems – of the offending essay mill websites are based overseas. Yes, universities could restrict students’ access to such websites via institutional wi-fi and campus-based computers. But quite apart from the unfortunate precedent such restriction would create, does anyone seriously think this would deter the determined student plagiarist? In the UK, the term “academic dishonesty” is indeed frequently used. But attempting to define it in law would be fraught with difficulty – and, in any case, the courts are loath to interfere in matters of academic judgement.

But while we will never entirely eradicate the well-run essay mill, there are a number of simple steps that can be taken to put many such enterprises out of business.

The first is to embed the formal written exam as a compulsory component of assessment. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of what’s termed “multimode assessment”. But the timed writing of an invigilated exam has its place. I stipulate that my students must obtain a specified minimum grade in such an exam if they wish to pass my module (which will also typically assess researched long essays and scholarly presentations).

Then we need to revisit class sizes (something on which the QAA’s much-vaunted Quality Code is strangely silent). I teach students in small groups. If a student I knew to be mediocre suddenly produced a measured and challenging paper written in sparkling English, my suspicions would be aroused at once. And I reserve the right to conduct (with a colleague) a formal oral examination of the student to test any such doubts.

The QAA also needs to address academic complicity in essay mill enterprises. I have never personally met any academic who’s involved in such a venture. But if media reports are to be believed, such miscreants certainly exist. It must be made absolutely clear to them that such involvement could, if proven, result in dismissal for gross misconduct.

Finally, we need to accept that some UK universities and colleges are themselves essay mills, at least after a fashion. By this I mean that they permit students to submit “draft” essays for comment and correction. In terms of “formative” assessment, I accept that such a practice might have some value. But how many “drafts” is a student permitted to submit? The Quality Code seems to have no answer to this question.

I would certainly not claim that my remedies for the essay mill plague are completely foolproof. Or that they are particularly original. Colleagues have quite rightly drawn attention to other countermeasures that I applaud – such as not setting the same or near-identical assignments year after year.

But what I am sure about is that the countermeasures I propose are reasonably easy to implement. They do not involve outside agencies, such as internet and search engine providers. And they do not require legislation.

Geoffrey Alderman is professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham.


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Reader's comments (2)

It's obvious that universities, particularly newer universities and those catering to weaker students, have a vested interest in students completing their degrees with as high marks as possible. One of the tools they use is the elimination of exams in favor of more essays and project work. These latter modes of assessment make cheating a simple matter of coughing up the money to buy a piece of work, or persuading a classmate to let you copy their project or help you to complete your project. The only mode of assessment that is difficult to cheat at is a properly invigilated exam, preferably one that is uniquely created for each term, or even varied amongst students taking the exam at the same time. This is not likely to be reinstituted by the aforementioned lesser universities, as it would almost certainly result in more failures and fewer completed good degrees. But at least the degree would be worth a lot more than it is currently.
This is a BIG problem and the sector as a whole (in the UK) seems to be in denial. It's becoming an minor epidemic at my own institution, esp. with international taught Master's students and dissertations, now that students have generally wised-up to the fact that plagiarism detection software will catch standard types of plagiarism. Custom written work is very time-consuming and resource-intensive to pursue through misconduct panels and hard to 'prove' - and the sanctions are far too weak to provide a deterrent. The retention of exams is certainly part of the answer but coursework has real value in many disciplines and is arguably (if correctly designed) a better driver and test of student learning. The suggestion of smaller class sizes is a utopian fantasy, I'm afraid - never gonna happen. The key question here is: Why hasn't there been stronger action against these essay mills from the government, QAA and universities? Or perhaps we shouldn't ask.


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